Plucky Corridors And Organizing for Regional Rail: What I Learned from The Rail Passengers Association’s Effectiveness

Quick Summary: Using Setbacks To Prompt Three Proactive Positives

– Recent discoveries of how the current Administration undermined transportation alternatives indicate the forces behind the car have conducted a coup.

+ The Surface Transportation Reauthorization should respond by starting to institutionalize programs that promise developing alternatives to the car commute. Regional Rail is central and a commitment to improving it should be part of the emerging social contract.

+ A small and plucky organization, the Rail Passengers Association (RPA) offers insights into winning hearts and minds in today’s U.S. Senate… often an obstacle to innovations.

+ In proposing a blueprint for the next generation of rail, RPA also offers an organizing model so corridors are the basis for updating commuter rail into Regional Rail (RR).

To thank RPA for their good works in preserving the national network and for helping me clarify how inter-city corridors are part of commuter rail’s transition to Regional Rail, RPA is the main subject in this second article in the “Pre-Reauthorization Series.”

Why does Pluck matter more than power ?

I found myself pondering this as I grasped the significance of two recent corruptions uncovered by Transportation for America. The current Administration has held back 77% of transit funds appropriated by Congress.  Worse than unlawful, withholding funds deepens America’s epic mistake of watching our economic competitors —for five decades — use rail to develop superior alternatives to the car.

A second and more specific corruption today swipes away progress encouraged by the previous DOT. A T4America analysis exposes how the BUILD multimodal program, in the last two years, has been distorted into a roadbuilding program. While BUILD had been innovating and leveraging local tax dollars better, the Trump DOT appears to be intentionally starving the ingenuity that was emerging from local agencies. 

By sabotaging experimentation in these two cases, the reaction shows its intent to neutralize the synergy between two key forces innovating the commute: Congress’ power of the purse;  and, cities’ incentives to reduce problems created by auto-domination. 

Add it up. It looks to me as if the reasoned experimentation from 2009 to 2016 has been aborted by a coup for the car.  While Trump fronts for this reaction, this secretive setback is further evidence that merely reauthorizing Surface Transportation still allows an easy return to the car’s 20th Century regime. As cure, the seedlings of auto-alternatives need protection from sabotage… preferably with the force of a social contract.

So, the next Reauthorization should start to institutionalize the development of alternatives. As part of this, recent innovations in suburban micro-mobility during the “first and last mile” must be connected to Regional Rail (RR) to maximize efficient alternatives for commuters.

This article supports Transportation For America’s often stated position of “With infrastructure, we don’t have a funding problem so much as a policy problem.”  Indeed, the U.S. policy problem is poorly organized rail assets. But even if we try to organize rails properly, solutions will be undermined when politics cause a relapse into auto-addiction as is now happening.

What is an effective Response To This Reaction or, if you prefer, The Car Coup ?

These setbacks and, implicitly, seeing the need for a social contract to provide alternatives helps explain the surprising energy unleashed by the Green New Deal as a framework. While plucky at grabbing attention, The Deal’s policies, currently, are mostly bare-bones plucky.  

The Deal’s lack of proven policy seems to be changing quickly. Other transportation and urban advocates are attaching policy prototypes to The Deal. I suggest an outline for Regional Rail (RR) in this second article of the “Pre-Reauthorization Series.”  A key reason for focussing on RR is it is no longer a prototype; its benefits already are proven in Europe for decades.

While policy can get wonky to even us wonks, The Deal serves as a political high concept if it also is a unifying strategy to bring the nation together. For that, a new politics must wrap the Deal in mainstream American values.  For part of that, RR is a unifying strategy for city and suburbs to create metropolitan transportation policies. As such, RR serves an important role in the civil war of values that, in retrospect, seems to have started in the 1990s.

To give our Deal strategic staying power to withstand the forces of auto-domination, RR should integrate alternative modes and facilitate remaking communities more compactly.  Most important, RR can transcend the toxicity of urban-suburban tensions that the reaction exploits. 

Critique this proposed Formula: 1 (Pluck) + 2 (Corridors) = 4 (RR, Regional Rail)

Most battles for auto-alternatives will be waged better if Pluck combines with a corridor-based strategy for RR. To make it harder for the powers-that-be to sabotage civil solutions, RR is presented as a unifying strategy. This is this article’s storyline and I next detail its unlikely hero.

1 (Sustained Pluck). The Rail Passengers Association recently rebranded as RPA. This citizen group started when Amtrak started in the 1970s. We owe RPA lots of credit for keeping many key inter-city routes alive. RPA also is Amtrak’s main watchdog, although it both barks at it on policy issues and collaborates with Amtrak by providing passenger feedback.

Seemingly in response to America’s national rail needing a major overhaul, RPA rebranded and expanded its portfolio of policy issues to include converting commuter rail so it stimulates alternatives for regional mobility. RPA’s regional proposals are corridor-based, largely a logical extension of its inter-city emphasis.

Personifying Pluck, RPA’s recent annual Day on the Hill broke records when some 120 citizens set 270+ appointments with Members and staffers. The out-sized impact these citizens have on Congress showed that day and often, particularly in the Senate. 

Advocates know the most difficult roadblocks to making good laws are put up in the Senate. So when a small group such as the RPA can make uncommon progress in the Senate, it is worth paying close attention to the RPA’s tactics.

To set the context of how difficult it can be for rails to make progress….. Recall how the obstacles to governing transportation were created by the Senate for the immediate past President; twice elected by commanding majorities. After the mandate of his first landslide victory in a campaign to bring the nation together, recall the 2009 proposal to improve the nation’s rail network with higher-speeds and capacity. Despite the deep recession needing stimulus from infrastructure and America falling decades behind in rail infrastructure, the forces of reaction were undeterred in their defense of the car and vehemently opposed this rail upgrade. By 2011, they beat back the proposal. While helped by a few governors who made rail upgrades into a priority kill, the reaction was most effective in the Senate. 

So if a popular President gets beat in a desperate downturn, how does RPA continue to win Senate support ?  Starting five years ago, RPA saved the Texas Eagle, got the money to rebuild the Gulf Coast service and, this year, convinced some conservative Senators that the Southwest Chief was an essential stimulant to local economies in their states.  These routes run through states who had Senators who helped derail Obama’s upgrades.  

This turnabout is partially explained by the Golden Spike that themes this article.  Six were just awarded by the RPA to six Senators who helped save the Southwest Chief. Primarily using the argument that the train helped the rural economy in these three states, the RPA prevailed. In an award ceremony held on Capitol Hill on April 2, Senators got to hold up their trophies (above); knowing the photos would appear in local newspapers. To elected officials, this coveted prize signified preserving an American tradition. Brilliantly effective Pluck.

Recall also that the award ceremony helped RPA beat back, for a second consecutive year, the existential threat of a Trump budget that would gut Amtrak’s inter-city network (outside of the NEC) by turning trains into Greyhound buses. Intrigued by their successes in keeping train support in last year’s budget, I attended RPA’s April 1 workshop to get some ideas so commuter rail can break its mold that prevents through-routing terminals.

If you are running out of time for more narrative, I cut to the chase: RPA is one of the most effective membership groups I’ve encountered after studying them for some 45 years.

RPA’s influence on the Senate is beyond unusual partly because it supports local activists. With only 18,000 members motivated mostly by their affection for trains, RPA leverages its paltry communications budget of $150,000 by mobilizing citizens who want Amtrak to arrive at their towns and on-time.  Their local pressure in rural places gets felt even in federal bureaucracies. 

Most far larger public interest groups find it too time-consuming to organize local senior citizens around complex topics. Yet, RPA produces results. An example of its premium pound-for-pound effectiveness is how RPA prepared it citizen-members to storm the Hill; arming them with infographic sheets on six topics to leave for Members to mull over.  For a more comprehensive list of RPA “Tools & Info” during the last few years, go to this page.

A key plucky RPA asset is demonstrable nonpartisanship. This year’s Golden Spikes were awarded to three Democrats and three Republicans. To see how this pays-off, read this letter from ten Senators to Amtrak defending endangered routes. All six of the 2019 Golden Spike recipients signed the letter.  And as proof positive of RPA’s impact, the full Senate Commerce Committee invited an RPA citizen leader to testify this June 26th on a panel with the CEO of Amtrak, the head of the freight rail association and a key regulator. How did RP do that ?

As RPA proves, Pluck is best defined within American values. Consumer and public interest groups are seen by mid-America as ranting against American values. Sometimes that is how they are painted — or allow themselves to be painted — by the reaction. But RPA protects itself from that paint with the theme of “trains bring us together.” Note how RPA’s “Rural Mobility” one-pager and its “Map of Unfunded Rail Projects”  both serve subtly to heal the nation’s rural-urban divide that makes the Senate such a difficult place for urban policies.

Standing above today’s rancor, RPA transcends conservative and liberal values. We should remind ourselves both values must shape long-term policy. This is essential if a Deal is to have liberals and conservatives endorse and, more important, update. For practice in long-term couching, see RPA’s “5 Reasons Conservatives Should Support A Modern, Customer Focussed National Passenger Train System.”

Most groups with out-sized impact leverage their Pluck with heroic myths; much like David versus Goliath, most common among the Nader Raider types I worked with in the 1980s. So it took me a while to understand how RPA is different… and how we can learn from it.  RPA’s strategic myth is more like “trains bring us together” … like a Deal.

Needed to resolve today’s civil strife, RPA’s myth serves as a unifying strategy. Applied across each metropolis, it can neutralize how the reaction exploits the urban-suburban divide. This tension primarily obstructs change because it is wired into most state governments who, in turn, are too slow in allowing innovations in regional mobility.

Despite today’s existential threat of losing the national network in one budgetary swipe, RPA makes time to think-through larger issues that require new authorities. Next, I share how their proposals for inter-city rail mesh with my five year project of exploring regional rail policies.

+ 2 (Corridors)… or To Make Trains Work for Everyone (including The Climate)

While RPA proves citizens can be plucky in defending historic routes, Pluck alone will not develop alternatives that reorganize a metro’s ingrained commuting behavior. The second factor in this article’s formula focusses on using through-routes to increase ridership as a key strategy to reduce road congestion.

Briefly, let me explain why U.S. through-routes (TR) are so difficult… and why they are important as the “+” factor.  

TRs are needed now in all six central terminals I’ve studied (Boston, DC, NYC Penn, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.)  Implicitly acknowledged as difficult, TRs are projected in most these plans to be one or two decades away. But because each has ineffective political authority, the TR realistically has been postponed indefinitely. Five of these systems have maxed-out their peak hour capacity.  European TRs have proven to be key to increase ridership and evolve Regional Rail (RR).

Resulting from my five years of intense study, I conclude America’s legacy commuter rail will not be transformed into RR unless we bring together suburban and urban communities to shape regional governments that operate with state authority. This requires a big deal. Delegating sufficient state transportation powers to metros could match the industrial era’s transfer of land use authority from states and counties to municipalities. For effective transportation, regions must exercise much of the transportation and taxing authority that, today, is controlled by largely uncaring and, certainly, poorly responding states.

Transferring authority to a key corridor starts the formula’s second factor leading to RR. This is a transitional goal to remake a metropolis corridor-by-key-corridor so that, eventually, it is possible for a metropolitan government to manage transportation options. Blocking this dynamic is that rail commuters are too small a primary constituency and their growth is stagnant relative to most metros’ population growth. 

To neutralize the powers-that-be, it helps to propose non-threatening, transitional changes. Corridors create a comfort zone for suburbs and cities to transcend tensions. Better yet, corridors create a dynamic for change since one town center can agree to connect more residents to a regional train service; or… it can decline and lose value to the next town down the corridor that does agree to starting more sustainable redevelopment. To reduce opposition to corridor regimes, single family neighborhoods can choose to remain unchanged. 

We should clarify a difference in usage of the word “regional” as we evolve a unified corridor policy. RPA’s regional rail is oriented toward the FRA’s incomplete studies of inter-state corridors; now also suffering USDOT subterfuge. I use the metropolitan commuting definition that can involve just one state (for now, California, Illinois or Massachusetts) transferring corridor authority to its metros. A subtle federal investment criteria can encourage the transfer. However in the multi-state metros of DC and NY City and probably Philadelphia, federal policy must use more legal force to overcome states’ rights arguments. 

In the Big Picture transition, states and counties were the legal basis for 20th Century urban policy. While the federal government did assert itself in mid-Century, it now is retreating; creating both a capital and policy vacuum. Corridors moderate Uncle Sam’s retreat by first using federal power to transfer state authority to metros so each can test its specific 21st Century transportation policy. But, this thinking doesn’t get into practice unless there are new federal criteria that invests in future infrastructure that also promotes metropolitan integration and its authority to pay for more. 

So policy-makers better understand how to maximize bang-for-the-buck and long-term investment in trains, my proposal’s specific reorganization strategy extends corridors through legacy terminals creating through-routes. TRs give U.S. metros advantages that most of Europe now benefits from. TRs create a multiplier effect…. or at least that is how 1+2 can equal 4.

= 4  (Plucky Corridors Can Make Good Regional Politics If They Help Resolve Fights)

Evolving RR will have to withstand the powers currently propping-up the auto’s domination. We make our job simpler by resolving three conflicts and protect a lasting Deal for transportation. If these three conflicts don’t get resolved, poor connectivity between modes continues and commuting makes insufficient progress. 

First, suburbs are wired to fight with urban centers. Already outlined, I propose resolving this by politically reorganizing corridors in my current summary article from the “What Stations Teach” writing project.  So corridor structuring is more likely to lead to regional policies with authority, the next article in “The Pre-Reauthorization Series” suggests applying techniques used in German metro transportation. (Clue: it involves MPO reform. The article is previewed at the end of the one you are reading.)

Second, the car’s interests will fight to keep policies that perpetuate auto-domination.  Their tactics are many and will continue once Trump is off-stage. Most prevent progress in other policy realms. Countering these tactics are the House’s recent passage of H.R.1.  While this won’t become law until after 2021, “good government” advocates seem to be resolving how special interests distort policies. Advocates’ federal reforms are built on a strategy of reforming several states. Three are key to commuter trains: Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York. As part of a wave of nonpartisan reforms, train advocates should find opportunities to help and/or include their reform of transferring state transportation authority to metros.  While it may be work to find synergy in that collaboration, corridor authority is more likely to work if the auto-oil-roadbuilding industrial complex does not keep its undue influence on agencies large and small.  

Third, freight fights passengers. Rationalizing rail corridors is RPA’s key policy issue for inter-city travel. Over 70% of passenger routes run on freight tracks. Except for the NEC, Amtrak depends on freight companies to let passengers pass without delays. While tensions may have been managed for the five decades after passenger rail’s bankruptcy, that deal is over. A new deal must be struck. Rail passengers reduce carbon emissions versus cars and planes. And rail freight also has huge advantages over trucks in reducing carbon and highway congestion.  

Thus, rail passengers and rail freight are policy allies in rationalizing corridors to reduce carbon emissions.  

So clearly, a new deal between rail freight and passengers will help build a New Green Deal.  While rail advocates seeking non-partisan credentials might shy away from what is still painted as a left-wing Green Deal, there are ways to ease into broadening the Deal so the mainstream accepts it.

Earlier RPA White Papers on the Reauthorization had several good ideas with threads that could be woven together into this broader Deal so corridors are more effective for passengers and freight. Briefly, I target five RPA proposals that could maximize rationalizing rail corridors and contribute to RR. Summarized below, more details are in RPA’s “Surface Transportation Reauthorization Proposals.”

1) Create a Regional Rail Operating Model. This consolidates improvements that advocates have proposed. This Model grows out of the 2008 PRIIA reauthorization.

2) Study a Central Dispatching Authority for rail; using rigor similar to air traffic control. 

3) Setup Shared-Use Advisory Committees to work through corridor-sharing problems. 

4) Establish a fund to purchase under-utilized Rights Of Ways.

5) Create a Highway Rationalization Commission that uses metrics similar to those used for rails. This levels the field so Regional Rail can compete for public subsidy based on the comprehensive benefits it delivers. Think of the mock-up logo below as the taxpayers’ transportation dollar in balance.

Cautiously, RPA’s proposals mostly request further study. This does not cost much. But reason today is no guarantee of advancement. To counter how the Senate thwarts solutions as “not having new revenue sources,” RPA has assembled a list of user fees (with more than a few taxes sprinkled in.) None are new. All require political support.  Support of user fees and some taxes are now growing among mainstream business associations; organized as Chambers for Transit. Also, metropolitan civic groups — particularly those hamstrung by their states as in Chicago and New York City — are making this revenue mix even more robust as transits’ poor condition now undermines well-functioning businesses. 

Beyond Plucky Corridors

Corridor collaboration has a hopeful politics emerging.  Rail freight has sufficient incentive to help organize corporate and civic support to strike a new deal that also helps passengers. Part of their incentive is the decades-long complaint (or joke) that freight from LA to Chicago takes as long to get to Chicago as it takes to get around Chicago. It is in corporate America’s best interest for corridors to be rationalized. Pray as we might that existing agencies will reform, a more likely solution is for a new, over-arching federal authority.  As I’ve said in other articles, we need a “Daddy” to rationalize passenger and freight at all levels of government. 

Also a diverse continent, Western Europe made the reforms two decades ago. Their corridors showed productivity gains and do so today. Their chain of reforms include EU Directives. National agencies were reformed. National rails were made more competitive. The public good is better served.

In the U.S., our stagnation — which includes a deepening decline in rail freight —is perpetuated by unreformed agencies.  Compare our rail — the world’s best after World War 2 — to what the rest of the world is building. Clearly, U.S. policy needs a higher authority to shape RR policies so both passengers and freight grow.

After the 2020 election, federal capital streams probably will improve. If this seems like progress, it really is not enough. We need mid-term solutions so metros replace the financing that has gone away. Uncle Sam’s retreat from 80% capital to 50% (and often less now) has been worsened by some states retreating.  Instead of the historic norm of 20% capital, Illinois recently contributed 0% to update Chicago’s most used heavy rail route. Instead of capital, Illinois granted Value Capture authority along that corridor. Hence, we see a part of the Deal; taxing authority shifts to a metro’s corridors. 

Only federal law will rationalize corridors to balance the needs of commuters, freight and inter-city passengers. Only federal policy can withstand the forces behind cars and truck freight so balanced transportation policies emerge. 

To get through this difficult period, consider our situation as an historic transformation resembling the Golden Spike commemorated in the stamp above; and for which we just celebrated its 150th anniversary on May 10.  Two rails started a transcontinental network that served to reunite the nation suffering the wounds of a civil war. It had been fought because rural, agricultural ways resisted the dynamic alternative we now call the industrial economy. That Civil War really was fought because one side wanted to hold back economic progress. That side also used the Senate to create its roadblocks. The side of progress wanted federal policy to facilitate the new economy. They proposed key federal policies that incentivized rail firms with land so they would tie together two coasts and bring people and businesses together.

By analogy, this history eerily reminds me of the car’s resistance today. When subterfuge thwarts progress, it undermines the civil code and a type of civil war emerges. Today’s transcontinental rail is Regional Rail. An important difference is that instead of merely connecting two coasts, each metro now will use trains to connect better its urban and suburban areas. This starts to happen when there is an authority that converts terminals into through-stations; allowing service to grow. Think of each metro’s corridors as building blocks for regional transportation. 

America also has a historic precedent: the early train corridors built real estate value. Trains will do so again… and faster if our corridors are organized properly.

Preview of Article #3, Munich Loves Cars, Trains And Synergy: Next Steps For U.S. MPO Reform

Metropolitan in-fighting among modes in America might be rationalized by metropolitan authority. But, it also might not… unless it is wired by federal law. Fortunately, daily transportation has the second strongest case for making metropolitan law. (Of course, first is water/stormwater/sewage.) Federal authority has been the bedrock of largely successful water policies since the 1970s. So to get transportation in balance, Uncle Sam is our biggest help.

Better yet, good transportation policy encourages good economics. Integrating transit modes, procuring efficient operators and sharing revenue wisely will maximize ridership. Bringing more people to real estate increases its value which, in turn, helps subsidize better integrated modes. Where redevelopment has accelerated (as in London, Berlin and Munich), land use and transit are well-integrated. The U.S. can get closer to that via MPO reform. To allow that, urban-suburban tensions can be transcended through corridors.  And the positive cycle quickens.

If trains in U.S. metros are to have a chance to catchup for the half century we just lost, it will be if the urban micro-mobility revolution (ride-share and shorter trips for the first and last mile) is coupled with Regional Rail to get people to job centers.  To develop RR’s capacity, the U.S. will need the push-pull provided by Traffic Demand Management (TDM) techniques. Having to pay for the car’s actual costs will push commuters out of their cars and pull them into trains.

TDM is employed well in Munich, home of BMW. As part of my May 2019 travel-study, I am developing the next “Pre-Reauthorization” article by learning from car-loving Munich what will develop alternatives in car-loving American metros. 

For now, notice the map above has ten stations (mostly job centers) in Munich’s city center. Every train stops at those stations before they route off and return passengers to the suburbs. Such efficiency has great practical benefits. But, a city only gets them through regional authority.

Metaphorical memories. Below, I’m standing on the pedestrian bridge built when Munich hosted the 1972 Olympics. The autobahn below divides the Olympic Park and was built to  access it conveniently. On the left, the BMW headquarters and its museum glorify their iconic cars and produce a key source of the Munich’s wealth. 

A picture of auto domination?  There is more to the story. Two blocks to the left of this photo is the subway stop. It was built there by Munich’s transportation authority; developer of one of Europe’s most effective transit systems, in part, because it is well integrated with Munich’s post-war sprawling suburbs. 

How is such balance possible in the land of the autobahn ?

Answer: Some body had the authority to shape transportation overall.

In July’s article, we will look at some steps to start evolving that authority in U.S. metros.

Even though I knew I was in Munich, this setting felt like the U.S.


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